Future projections, near and far
Date: June 2 2012
From metaphysical musings to space opera for young adults, science fiction is going through one of its most creative periods, writes Colin Steele
Christopher Priest's The Islanders (Gollancz. 339pp. $32.95) took out the British Science Fiction Association's novel of the year prize in April, beating off China Mieville's Embassytown and Adam Roberts's By Light Alone. Priest was named one of the best young British novelists in 1983, a list which included Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes; he has never quite reached their literary fame, although his novels The Separation and The Prestige were genre award-winners.
The Islanders takes readers inside his Dream Archipelago, a planet-wide collection of islands that defy geographical and temporal logic, although there are Aegean and Scandinavian island similarities. Priest's ''Introductory'' provides an intentionally vague background to the islands, their history and people, before chapters of intrigue and murder which, Priest says, ''never tie up in a conventional sense''. The Islanders resembles the Alain Robbe-Grillet novels of the 1950s and '60s in which events are never fully explained and narrative ambiguities reflect the mirrored uncertainty of characters and occurrences. The Islanders needs initial patience but will ultimately reward readers who unpick Priest's musings on truth, belief and trust.
More initial suspension of disbelief is required in By Light Alone (Gollancz. 407pp. $32.99). Roberts, professor of 19th-century literature at Queen Mary College, London, imagines a near-future world in which gene-engineering has allowed basic nutrition to be provided through photosynthesis of an individual's hair. While people can survive by light alone, there are still massive distinctions between the super-rich and the bulk of the population. The rich demonstrate their wealth by shaving their hair and flaunting their baldness and their obesity. Roberts's super-rich often verge on caricature in a plot that juxtaposes a kidnapping and a commentary on wealth distribution and societal tensions.
Alistair Reynolds, perhaps to pad out his 10-book, £1 million contract with Gollancz, begins his Poseidon's Children trilogy with the sprawling Blue Remembered Earth (Gollancz. 505pp. $32.99). It is set 150 years into the future when global warming has occurred but dramatic climatic change has been controlled by science. Africa is now a leading economic and technological power. Reynolds follows competing members of the super-rich East African Akinya family to the Moon, then to Mars and ultimately beyond the solar system after a 2001-like scientific kick-start. Reynolds is slow to pick up narrative pace, being sidetracked into character and, admittedly fascinating, technological infodumps. Final judgment, however, should be reserved until the completion of the trilogy.
Paul McAuley, like Reynolds, has a science doctorate and is another leading exponent of hard SF. In the Mouth of the Whale (Gollancz. 376pp. $32.99) could be read alone, but since it is a sequel of sorts to The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun, it might be better for new readers to start at the beginning of the series. McAuley depicts a far future where humanity has split into three categories: the True, the nearest to humanity; the genetically engineered and enslaved Quick; and the Ghosts, post-human beings. McAuley juggles his complex storylines against a deep scientific background, which at times almost resembles ''techno-poetry''.
Another British academic, Chris Beckett, sets his third novel, Dark Eden (Corvus. 404pp. $39.99), on a distant planet where the 532 descendants from a wrecked spaceship have regressed both physically and intellectually. They eke out a dismal existence under geothermal trees, in a barely hospitable valley, until a young group decides to break ''the laws of Eden'' and the hierarchical systems. Beckett provides a dark and compelling platform for a commentary on the nature of power and the need to make hard short-term decisions for long-term benefits.
Australian SF is represented by Garth Nix's exuberant A Confusion of Princes (Allen & Unwin. 337pp. $22.99), which spins off his work with the still-to-be-completed Imperial Galaxy online game. Reflecting its origins, Nix shapes a fast-moving, young-adult novel, in contrast to his complex fantasies such as The Abhorsen Trilogy. Nix's main protagonist is Khemri, a prince of an empire which stretches across the galaxy. Princes are taken from their parents as children, ''augmented'' and placed in competition with each other in a process which only becomes slowly apparent. Khemri confronts various challenges, from assassination to trying to live as a normal human being. In the latter role, he encounters romance, which makes him increasingly question his imposed destiny. Nix mixes entertaining space opera with a traditional coming-of-age scenario of the dilemmas and responsibilities of power, responsibility and self-determination.
Fifty-four year old New Zealander Steve Wheeler's debut novel, Burnt Ice (Harper Voyager, 424pp, $29.99), is the first in his A Fury of Aces series. Set in a distant future, where the Administration rules, ''bureaucracy even in the far future is the same'', and the Games Board provides reality entertainment for the masses through live military operations. Wheeler's small group of soldier-engineers find themselves catapulted into confrontation with aliens and into a series of planetary adventures. Burnt Ice evokes memories of Larry Niven's hard-SF writing in which technical detail plays a major role. Wheeler has some nice creations in this area, particularly in AI, but his lack of character depth hinders full empathy with the main protagonists. Burnt Ice, nonetheless, proves that it's never too late in life for an author to tell a story of the future.
Colin Steele is an emeritus fellow at the ANU.